VERSES IN SURDİBİ
(Surdibi is the old town in Istanbul)
The Buried History of Poverty
Why do I murmur these words?
Walking in Surdibi beneath the city walls
not whistling because I know
I’m getting older, and can only answer
loneliness with loneliness.
What a still-learning and impatient time it was
when the world was set in accordance with our steps.
Now, in this flood of compassion
we collide like flying clouds of dust –
scrap-yard apprentices scattered willy nilly
out in the crooked streets – that is all.
In Byzantium’s mossy walls,
or on the tired windowsills of Topkapı
were there traces of our childish world?
or in the mouldy histories of fishermen decorated with tales
and of unmentioned stonemasons?
And here now sullen car-mechanics
hold the odour of history -
the raw truth of poverty and offer it
politely with their oily gloves
Remember it, I say remember
so you’ll be believed.
Why do I say this?
It’s by forgetting that we feed ourselves in savage streets
Because like the seasons of the year
we’ve lived through raids, migrations, invasions and salvations
and we’ll never again find the flower we left
long ago on this sultans’ grave
built upon the grave of another kingdom.
We’re Strangers Here, Dear Sir
He isn’t the kind that dies, he says,
Did I suggest the opposite
As I stood looking at his face?
But there’s no hiding around here, my dear Sir.
Doesn’t he know that in these streets
Death is present in the eyes of everyone?
He takes out a ledger or two with old writing –
I bend towards it, as if this will make things clearer.
-everything left from him will bring good luck, I believe-
But we’ll hide, won’t we, my dear Sir?
We’ll hide as much as we can hide in this forsaken place.
Here, houses abandoned in every street
A thousand years of history summarized in architecture. I wonder -
Does he love the years he has lived? Accept
the ones collapsed and gone. He says
wine still burns his throat – is it strange to celebrate that?
I am confronted with a sweet and sneaky fate.
It’s snowing hard outside, we line up all we have
Around a tin can made of fire
We’re not kids now. More’s the pity I think
The man’s glad about it, my dear Sir.’ Let’s hope
Blacks and sleepless Bulgarians don’t rush out
Let’s hope incomprehensible oaths don’t collide in the exhaust fumes
He couldn’t care less that he had died and was in the street and
-how it happened I don’t know- I was just the one he stopped to talk to there.
I'm thinking now
If I had a lucky hat, maybe,
I would also be not afraid of dying.
Now I’m a stranger in these parts – good thing, too,
That I’m a stranger to this shitty world of ours-
For it’ll set on fire the knots inside our heads
I talk of dreams I think are really great,
Limitless maps and so on – and even though
Maybe no-one’s listening, that’s just fine by me.
It’s snowing hard outside
And I keep rubbing that summary of history in my palm
I’m so afraid, what if no-one listens? Not a soul...
It’s snowing hard outside
‘But there’s no summary of life, my dear Sir’
This loneliness of fire
Will always find a tin can to burn in
To melt away the barbed wire it comes up against.
In this damnable world
Either we don’t like anything or else
We bite off more than we can chew;
Like loving the people without
Like changing them without hurting them.
As it doesn’t work,
You’ve got to be a kid
Never tried, never mistaken.
All have to be forgotten
Page three cuttings ripped from papers
Pictures on faded bubble gum wrappers
well known places on destination boards of buses.
Can’t this be done, my dear? Right?
In those poor and ugly streets
A child inside of me
Is trying to blow up a ball,
And will it still be evening?
Go on, ask his name before mama calls him back
far away form my familiar childhood
is this boy trying to fix the breaks of a bike
I must stop trying to learn lessons
from his hands accustomed to iron and copper
in streets where we hung around on summer days
from the long hours he works
whereas we hate working itself in this century
from his incurious eyes
looking at the stuff we saved from a decaying sky
from the darkness he wants to get rid of
like a low cloud he drags round
seeing that I don’t know how to love
I must leave them all behind and go
all those books about the working class
that I know by heart, and stop equating
unanswered loves with revolutions
and I must leave my familiar childhood
at the top of the hill along with that bike
whose brakes are bust
Me and My Toy Lightning Flashes
D’you think it didn’t happen, my dear friend?
I’ve told small lies and fibs, of course I have.
They’re like loose change here in my pockets
And of course I’ve told much bigger ones as well.
In the city of great dreams and great lies, let’s get this clear,
Everyone’s Istanbul belongs to them alone.
Mine belongs to several women
-no names, of course-
Full of all they have thrown out of other towns
Everybody’s days belong to them, dear friend
Just as everybody goes and lives their death themselves:
For the bus driver it’s the steel feathers
Of the Bosphorus Bridge that give him wings.
The Governor’s Office for the retired policeman;
The entrance door of a pistol pointed at his head;
The street I walk down of a morning is the middle
Of a handfull of pills for a woman who’s been left;
And the pavements of Surdibi are
The eyes of a homeless man who’s gazing into mine
You, like a god with his nose in air, pathetic and disguised -
Be sure to take a good look at the world!
Look at his Istanbul,
But you can’t touch it, just look
Like low-down angels; new observations
Write new verdicts in the margin in books of dreams
The Istanbul inside his overcoat – forbid that for a start–
A few banknotes hidden in a shoe – give that away.
He’s heard of Ayasophia – now talk about its architectural features –
But you and your toy lightning flashes -
All you can do is pass on to History what you’ve seen, all you can do
Is be dead scared of what you’ve seen, face the tree and count to ninety-nine
Look, there’s nothing at all in common between that guy and hope
But he loves this city more than anyone, smile
At the sun that will hit your face a moment later and
Maybe it’ll smile back at you.
But you don’t even know, do you? That
There’s a cloud covering the sun.
Now who’s going to be sorry for whom?
broken bottles and that crutch of his around
I put myself in his place, knowing
that walking is happiness itself etcetera…
I know each child has unanswered questions, and
happy endings only exist in dust on windows at the back
but first of all, like the gulls circling around the city tip,
we must hunt with marble balls, one by one,
for things we in this neighbourhood know as fear
And then we must go and find that question
Oh for the sake of a thousand beavers! If we must die
then we must die together. Lets in any case -
isn’t that why I’m here?
but as the local train goes clattering on its way
I forget all I’ve learnt from the blackboard
of cracked walls we pass.
On arriving home it’s all gone from my head.
For the first thing we must remember is our dreams.
That waking up, etcetera, is happiness itself.
Then we must release the seagulls near the tip into the sea
The guy holds out his wine to me,
I must find a good excuse.
trans. by Georgina Özer, ed. by Raman Mundair
from New 'Questions From A Worker Who Reads'
Questions From a Sailor Who Reads
do they mention in schools
the colour of the flag they hoist in Potemkin touched upon
instead of messing up blackboards with white chalk
or the coloured illustrations of slave ships in the Mediterranean
the lost songs of mutinous mariners -
or that, in Beykoz, glassworkers once
wiped their eyes with pieces of broken glass
that in Eyüp when boatmen enter that profession
they mummify their hearts with moss
that as the sunlight hit Süleymaniye Mosque
its papers burst into flames beneath the glare of all the historians
or that on Galata Bridge there is still some dust from the archives
on the finger of a retired official removing the hook from a fish
that safety pins makes drops of blood appear
on the dark skin of children returning from the public fountains
that migrants who never see the sea are the true Stambouliotes
seascapes hang in their school corridors
that the sun still hits the eyes of a cleaning lady
who fell while washing the windows
what the captain was thinking about when he nearly crashed into the pier?
or the names of illeagal migrants on the Blacksea.
over which fish and which dead bodies did we pass?
who made love on the deck on a winter day?
so many reports.
so many questions.
isn’t life only
a rope tied between distant dreams and the alnd?
trans. by Bill Herbert
Postcards From A Traveller Who Reads
'everything flows,' said the Ancient Aegean
since the very first rain-charm
but everywhere along a river
poverty is much the same, it is like a birth mark
'everything,' he said - even those things
we suppose are sins and those we suppose are destinies
from our doorstep and from our burnt skin to the rivers
perhaps for this reason, Hindus bathing in the Ganges
are the ones who have already tamed death
as for the Amazon, I suppose it's the most authoritative dictionary of human idioms
for novelists working in Çukurova
the Ceyhan River is a fictional character
Kızılırmak River is
a tetchy but talented folk poet
rivers are infinite as numbers
you notice Asi has
its hand on Syria's knee
if you ask me Meriç is
a child sleeping restlessly between its mitera and baba
as for Sakarya and Susurluk
they are close relatives who only visit each other once in a long while
like words from the Kurdish and the Turkish ends of the country
although everything flows from day to day
the Tigris and Euphrates are arm in arm
much the same, don't you think, as the millions of shackled slaves
in those souvenir photos, transported from Africa
trans. by Bill Herbert
Beginning For Beginners
Once I begin climbing with someone
I never look down, I told you
look directly into my eyes,
they suit you. And you told me
lovers always get caught by leaving
their eye-prints behind.
Once you begin to get bored
of rules, neighbors phoning, false speeches
go ahead, shut the door, suit yourself.
Your heart is underage, can't ink
the deals, sign deeds, borrow money
from legitimate sources, tossing them
like confetti might suit you. I've been told
it is hard to talk
about old flames.
But I don't beat about the bush, see
torching also needs some talent
and you touch with the hands
of someone whose parachute
didn't open, you've spent your whole life
blocking the ground. Let the reporter say
it went down like this:
I didn't know what color the sea was
till I woke up beside you – I was born
on the coast – saw sea for the first time.
Does it suit an honorable Gentlelady to shock
a boy his first day at the beach?
Like at backgammon, I've been beaten
“two reverse one flat”.
Whenever my heart is witnessed
I let it go. I read somewhere
all crimes of passion begin
with a set of snake eyes.
While I kept rolling blanks,
a woman suited to a red dress
was sashaying out
of the scene. I knew it was you,
recognized the color
of your defiance.
Once I begin
I never look back. You shouldn't.
Yet, you must miss me sometimes,
when it suits you, remember
our first date, when my eyes
cocked and smoked for you. Because I've been told
all lovers return to the murder scene. My dear, may I
have the pleasure of this crime?
trans. by Ryan van Winkle
The terminal is useless
if we are not going to meet
our memories shouldering
cider and chips as they slide
from the ferry. Every morning
I iron memories of my old love,
straight, flat and pregnant
with childish questions
I dreamed then forgot.
I keep her photos ready, alien
on the blue bedspread as pirates
on a quiet blue lake,
like a crossword stuck
in the corner of my life
would she like to answer
my call for a third night with Nastenka?
All the facades in Baharive street are so clever
they know she still hides herself in brown cardigans
but I wonder why she won't go out
when there are no clouds
in her pockets.
When we finished our final tea
Istanbul quit repeating itself
and I took off my redundancies.
Reality can be softened
by daises, cut and waiting
in a vase I never bought
and just now
the first rain
of autumn begins.
trans. by Ryan van Winkle
One Out of Three
the first man to light a kerosene lamp in the street, in beyoğlu or rome
he should've burned this city to the ground
they wrote in one of the temples in ancient egypt
while drinking beer from a common bowl
kicking over the barrels
and flicking a match
is your only elixir to forget
but after the invention of gunpowder it was learned
a city can be burned
nothing can be forgotten
if it is true that a man puts a dove beneath his dark raincoat to warm it up
that another always buys from the same bagel-seller
because he knows the man is cold
that a gypsy girl is happiest when she finds a doll in the rubbish
that I could never say to the road-sweepers that I really love the fallen leaves
that I hesitated to help the rag-and-bone man pull his cart
just because he was the same age as me
if it is true
that I secretly inhale the dust in second hand bookstores
then it is certainly the case
that sailors only go to sea to say that one sentence on the tip of their tongue
for the moment
I appear and disappear in my own dreams
and disperse myself throughout the streets
there are traces of you everywhere we’ve been
can a street
sometimes lead to a few months ago?
is this cold weather really worth getting ill for?
I don’t like those who sit outside on the ferry
only in the summer
because they're prepared to brave the winter
beetles can just fly
around all August -
come December I am going to knock on your deaf door…
there are four seasons
here three of them are winter...
trans. by Bill Herbert